Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America

A new post in the smallpox series: An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptualisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

In the journal of his voyage to the Carolinas published in 1709, John Lawson connects the arrival of syphilis in America to Columbus, describing the striking consequences for the Santee,1 a Siouan population near the river of the same name in present-day South Carolina, which declined from about a thousand in the seventeenth century to less than ninety at the beginning of the eighteenth.2

On behalf of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, to whom he dedicated his New Voyage, Lawson set out from Charleston on 28 December 1700, and arrived at the mouth of the Pamlico River (Pampticough) on 24 February 1701,3 drawing a wide arc in Carolina territories. It crossed and described an unmapped area, about which Europeans’ knowledge was largely lacking. The observer clearly identified the role of diseases of European origin, smallpox above all, in the rapid decline of populations such as the Sewee, another nation probably of Siouan stock, whose numbers, estimated at around eight hundred in the seventeenth century, were reduced to seventy-five in 1715:4

the Sewees have been formerly a large Nation, though now very much decreas’d since the English hath seated their Land, and all other Nations of Indians are observ’d to partake of the same Fate, where the Europeans come, the Indians being a People very apt to catch any Distemper they are afflicted withal; the Small-Pox has destroy’d many thousands of these Natives.

John Brickell too, in his 1737 Natural History North-Carolina, largely based on Lawson’s text,5 developed Lawson’s attention to medical matters and added some original considerations. Speaking of the diseases afflicting European settlers and Indian nations in Carolina, while treating more extensively the most widespread at the time, gout and syphilis, he mentioned smallpox as a plague imported from Europe. The consequences in terms of demographic dynamics, in favour of the European colonists, were already clear: “The Small Pox proved very fatal amongst them in the late War with the Christians, few or none ever escaping Death that were seized with it. This Distemper was entirely unknown to them before the arrival of the Europeans amongst them”.6  The disease was fatal: “neither has the small Pox ever visited this Country but once, and that in the late Indian War, which destroyed most of those Savages that were seized with it”.7

The Plague seemed to have remained unknown, but the contribution of smallpox to the rapid decimation of American populations was clearly identified alongside other causes, which were part of the stereotypical image of the American “savage” in the eighteenth century: wars between nations – a state of perpetual belligerence – and intemperate alcohol consumption above all:8

[…] the Small Pox, their continual Wars with each other, their poysoning, and several other Distempers and Methods amongst them, and particularly their drinking Rum to excess have made such great destruction amongst them, that I am well informed, that there is not the tenth Indian in number, to what there was sixty Years ago.

The diachronic and diatopic variations in terminology are clear indications of the stratification and upheavals affecting the cultural construction of American societies as instances of a pre-civilised humanity on the part of Euro-American observers. The variety of American societies flattens out under labels such as ‘Indian’ or ‘Savage’9 Alongside the linguistic-conceptual category used to designate the ‘other’, there is an oscillation between the traditional designation of the colonists as ‘Christians’ and the use of a category that is decidedly less consolidated but destined to particular fortune: that of ‘Europeans‘. This agglutination is conspicuous in a colonial context in which the competition between imperial powers, British and French above all, was still far from being resolved. 10 An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptual schematisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina (London 1709). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).


[1] For Native American nations, the exonyms currently used in secondary literature are adopted in the text, giving in brackets any variants adopted in primary sources. In general on nomenclatural confusion: M. Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières, 1971; Paris, Albin Michel 1995, pp. 26 and ff..

[2] J. Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, edited and with an Introduction by H. Talmage Lefler, 1709; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press 1967, pp. [24-25], see also editorial note 22.

[3] New Style calendar year, for Lawson was 1700.

[4] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. [17], see here editorial note 11 on Sewees.

[5] J. Brickell, The Natural History North-Carolina: With an Account of the Trade, Manners, and Customs of the Christian and Indian Inhabitants […], Dublin, Printed by James Carson 1737. On the vexata quaestio of plagiarism of Lawson see: P. G. Adams, John Lawson’s Alter-Ego: Dr. John Brickell, «The North Carolina Historical Review», 34, 3, 1957, pp. 313-326.

[6] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 397.

[7] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 253.

[8] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 308.

[9] On the conceptual and linguistic evolution of ‘savage’: S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi, 1972; Turin, Einaudi 2014, p. 4 and passim; J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1999-2015, 6 vols., vol. 4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005, pp. 2-3, 158 and ff. On the ‘savage’ and the formulation of ideas of development and progress and with the framing of human variety within a universalist perspective in the eighteenth century: S. Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2013.

[10] Dynamics that can usefully be read in terms of a complex interaction between «inner-European process of Europeanization and something once referred to as the “Europeanization of the Earth”», W. Schmale, Processes of Europeanization, 2010, in EGO – European History Online,, ad vocem, par. 2.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America," in Geographies of Time, 01/05/2022,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

«in the raging time of the small pox»

A new series on smallpox and the documentation of American otherness in the late Eighteenth century

The series in brief

This post inaugurates a series focussing on the perception of the effects of smallpox on the demographic decline of the native North American populations by some English-speaking writers in the eighteenth century. The series will highlight the awareness expressed by contemporary observers of the circulation of new infectious diseases imported from Europe into North America, and of the effects of these diseases – of which smallpox is a critical but far from unique case – on the decimation or incipient extinction of native peoples.

The aim of this series is to show how this awareness favoured, in English-speaking observers, the agglutination of the category of “European”, and an urgent need to document American human diversity before its disappearance.

Works by John Lawson, John Brickell, James Adair, and Cadwallader Colden are considered before dwelling on the Lewis and Clark expedition and on Thomas Jefferson’s role in the expedition’s cultural aims and interests in medicine.

Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores
Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores at 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 18-20 days after inoculation or contraction. In the same volume appear a letter by Jefferson in support of the vaccine practice and the data recorded by Jefferson during the Monticello experiments. Copy at Yale University, Cushing, Whitney Medical Library, no known restrictions on reproduction for academic use.

Diseases and epidemics in the Euro-American encounter: attributions of meaning and imperial constructions

The deep connection between geographical, historical, proto-ethnographic and medical knowledge of the American territory and its inhabitants, projects of colonial government and commercial expansion, is clearly visible in the accounts of the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis, together with Lieutenant William Clark between 1804 and 1806, in the Louisiana territory newly acquired by the young republic.

The institutional, scientific and symbolic value in North American history of the mission and the documentation collected could hardly be overestimated. Among Thomas Jefferson’s objectives in promoting it to Congress, geographical exploration and the establishment of diplomatic relations with native peoples go hand in hand with plans for colonial expansion, the search for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific and other possible advantages for the American fur trade.1

Among the expedition’s programmes there are also important aspects in the medical field, explored in depth by a historiography interested above all in the disciplinary history of medical knowledge and practices,2 with a prevalence of contributions written by doctors and medical historians, while reflections in the field of cultural history and aimed at reconstructing the perspective of the populations encountered by the expedition were rather rare.3 The expedition’s interests in the field of anatomical study and the inoculation of the smallpox vaccine as an instrument of diplomacy are set against the widely known background of the decimation of native populations by pathogens of European origin, of which smallpox is a sadly known and not unique occurrence.4  The role of germs, diseases, epidemics in the Euro-American encounter is in turn understandable as part of broader environmental and biological scenarios and processes of European expansion into America.5

The observation of the decimation of native populations by diseases to which European settlers were immune through early exposure dates back at least to Ralph Lane and Thomas Hariot’s 16th century. Equally old is the attribution of this mortality to a divine will, to a providential plan favourable to the colonists, proposed for example by Hariot.6 During the 17th century, disease had a profound effect on demographic dynamics in North America, and continued to reverberate on a cultural and religious level. While between 1616 and 1636 approximately ninety percent of the native populations of Massachusetts, Wampanoag and New England died from smallpox and other epidemics, Ferdinand Gorges, John Winthrop and William Bradford conceptualised what they observed in terms of a providential narrative. The semantisations of diseases and epidemics in a religious sense had profound repercussions on the dynamics of Christian missionary work.7  Interpretations of plagues as a form of punishment or divine sign in the Christian context, and later debates about the endemic origin of pathogens, fed the substratum of the hierarchisation of American ‘savages’ in a racial sense.8 Teleological visions of smallpox as written in the destiny of native populations were repeated until the late nineteenth century.9

The attribution of meaning to diseases and inequalities between groups in terms of mortality is to all effects part of the ideological tools of imperial constructions (not only) in the North Atlantic context. Individual and collective responses to epidemic phenomena incorporate elements at the intersection of medical theories, economic and political interests, and racial ideologies. Rationalisations of these phenomena, the cultural malleability of their interpretation always reveal specific social and political points of view. In the words of David Jones:10

Disparities can be seen as proof of natural hierarchy, as products of misbehaviour, or as evidence of social injustice. These assessments motivate or undermine interventions, influencing whether observers prevent an epidemic’s spread, treat its victims, or exploit its opportunities.


[1] M. Lewis and W. Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806, edited, with introduction, notes and index, by R. G. Thwaites, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company 1904, 7 vols., and vol. 8: Atlas accompanying the original journals, in quest’edizione: vol. I, Thwaites, Introduction, xvii-lviii, e V. H. Paltsits, Bibliographical Data, lxi-lxxxiv.

[2] E. G. Chuinard, Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Glendale, CA, Arthur H. Clark Company 1979; B. C. Paton, Lewis and Clark: Doctors in the Wilderness, Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2001; D. J. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt: The Hardship and Medicine of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Foreword by Moira Ambrose, Illustrations by R. F. “Bob” Morgan, Helena, MT, Farcountry Press 2002. Obiettivi divulgativi sono prioritari in Paton.

[3] Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country: The Native American Perspective, ed. by F. E. Hoxie and J. T. Nelson, Urbana, University of Illinois Press 2007; see also the namesake exhibition on Newberry Library’s website,; The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. by Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee and Elders Cultural Advisory Council, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

[4] R. T. Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectiouus Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874, Seattle and Vancouver, University of Washington and UBC Presses 1999; R. T. Boyd, Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest. The First Epidemics, «BC Studies», 101, 1994, accessed via Anthropology Faculty Publications and Presentations, 141,; D. S. Jones, Epidemics in Indian Country, 2014, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, American History, doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.27; W. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Garden City, NY, Anchor Press-Doubleday 1976, specialmente cap. 5.

[5] A. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Westport, CT, Greenwood 1972; J. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies, New York and London, Norton 1997; W. H. McNeill, The Global Condition. Conquerors, Catastrophes, & Community, Princeton, Princeton University Press 1992.

[6] D. S. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality since 1600, Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard University Press 2004, pp. 20-45, anche per le successive note su Lane, Bradford e Hariot.

[7] N. Salisbury, Spiritual Giants, Worldly Empires: Indigenous Peoples and New England to the 1680s, in The World of Colonial America: An Atlantic Handbook, ed. by I. Gallup-Diaz, London and New York, Routledge 2017, pp. 153-170 vedi pp. 156-160.

[8] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics; J. E. Chaplin, Was Knowledge Power? Science in the British Atlantic, pp. 281-300, in The World of Colonial America, ed. by Gallup-Diaz, specialmente p. 286.

[9] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics, 105.

[10] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics, 3.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "«in the raging time of the small pox»," in Geographies of Time, 01/03/2022,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies

The temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other and the Lewis and Clark expedition: a new post in the Languages and/in time series

The endpoint of this survey is one of the most significant collections of indigenous American languages made at the end of the long eighteenth century: it was also the prelude to a whole series of systematic studies, grammars, and dictionaries that would go hand in hand with the establishment of linguistics and lexicography as autonomous academic-scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century. This endpoint was the collection of vocabularies prepared as part of the expedition west of the Mississippi led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark between 1804 and 1806. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the symbolic significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition in North American history can hardly be overestimated.[1]

Paradoxically, the historical noteworthiness of Lewis and Clark’s vocabularies is undiminished by the fact that they were lost before being published with the account. However, what can be gleaned from related sources place these vocabularies at the very crossroads of ethnographic curiosity, geographical and scientific exploration, colonial and commercial projects, and the temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other. Lewis and Clark’s journals and the rich array of other texts and maps amassed in the course of the expedition went through a particularly tormented publishing process, complicated by the death of Lewis in 1809.[2] The vocabularies were not included in the first edition (which drew on the journals and other sources, prepared by Nicholas Biddle and edited by Paul Allen).[3] An edition of the material pertaining to scientific observations as a supplement to the journals was planned under the supervision of Benjamin Smith Barton, naturalist and vice-president of the American Philosophical Society. After Barton’s premature death, Jefferson tried to gather together all the manuscript materials but, by then, the vocabularies (which according to Biddle were in Barton’s possession) had been lost. ‘They formed, I think,  a bundle of loose sheets each sheet containing a printed vocabulary in English with the corresponding Indian name in manuscript – recalled Biddle –. There was also another collection of Indian vocabularies, which, if I am not mistaken, was in the handwriting of Mr Jefferson’.[4]

Having passed through Biddle’s and/or Barton’s hands, then, or perhaps having remained in Clark’s possession, the twenty-three vocabularies collected during the expedition were never to arrive to the archives of the American Philosophical Society.[5]

What has survived is the empty form with lists of words in English which Jefferson designed to be filled in with the various native languages, the tantalising ghost of those ‘blank vocabularies’ mentioned in the ‘Documents relating to the equipment of the expedition’.[6] The journals, correspondence and prospectus for the edition prepared by Lewis all mention their being compiled in various locations during the journey.[7] Jefferson had planned to publish the Lewis and Clark vocabularies along with others he had compiled.[8] Sadly, his collection too was lost in 1809, on his trip back to Monticello after the end of his presidency:

I had thro’ the course of my life availed myself of every opportunity of procuring vocabularies of the languages of every tribe which either myself or my friends could have access to. They amounted to about 40 more or less perfect. But in their passage from Washington to this place, the trunk in which they were was stolen and plundered, and some fragments only of the vocabularies were recovered.[9]

The Lewis and Clark vocabularies were part of a broader project of systematic documentation which Jefferson had been promoting since the 1780s.[10] Within this framework, he also gradually perfected the above-mentioned blank form comprising around 280 commonly used English words, with empty spaces alongside for their translation, which was used by numerous collaborators of the American Philosophical Society.[11] On the one hand, linguistic knowledge was essential for the republican government penetration into those territories, which had seemingly become ripe for colonisation in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase. But this extensive knowledge was also meant to facilitate studies of the indigenous American historical past and of the genealogical relationships between languages (and nations) to ‘search for affinities between these and the languages of Europe and Asia’.[12]

I have long believed we can never get any information of the ancient history of the Indians, of their descent and filiation, but from a knowledge and comparative view of their languages.[13]

At the same time, the urgency of documenting these languages comes from the realisation of their speakers’ possible – indeed probable – extinction, given the processes set in motion by European expansion:

It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish […], it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.[14]

In point of fact, concludes Jefferson, an archive of indigenous American languages will make further research possible in the future.[15] What emerges from Jefferson’s project is thus a dual historical location of Native American languages: glotto-genealogical – designed to trace the origin of the first American societies through their languages – and programmatical – to be used at some point in the future for documentation and research. The role of linguistic compilers assigned to Lewis and Clark is the embodiment of that close connection between linguistics as natural history and new ideas of imperial expansion. The relatively independent status as texts of the expedition vocabularies, and the plan to publish them separately are indicative of a trend towards lexicographical collections being increasingly detached from the immediate context in which they were drawn up – the journey and its account – at the same time they are also, incidentally, the cause of the vocabularies loss.


[1] Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904), 7 vols. In this edition see Reuben Gold Thwaites, ‘Introduction’, I, pp. xvii–lviii, and Victor Hugo Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, I, pp. lxi–lxxxiv. On Jefferson’s role: ‘Appendix’ in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 193–287, especially ‘Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis’, June 20, 1803, pp. 347–352; and ‘Ethnological information desired’, n.p., n.d., pp. 283–287; see also Thwaites, ‘Introduction’, pp. xxxiii–xxxiv.

[2] Paul Russell Cutright, A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals (Norman, 1976); Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, pp. lxvi–xciii; Gary E. Moulton, ‘Provenance and description of the journals’, in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Moulton (Lincoln, 1983-2001), 13 vols, II, Appendix B, digital ed.: Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition,, section Journals; a partial publication is Message from the President of the United States (City of Washington, 1806); on which see also Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, pp. lxiii–lxv; the journal of sergeant Patrick Gass was published in Philadelphia in 1807.

[3] History of the Exploration under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri (Philadelphia, 1814). Biddle’s version went through twenty editions in English by 1904.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Biddle to William Tilghman, April 6, 1818, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 408–410, quote on page 409; see also Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, pp. 394–396, see 395; Jefferson to John Vaughan, June 28, 1817, pp. 400–401; Jefferson to Peter S. Duponceau, November 7, 1817, pp. 402–404, see p. 402.

[5] Cutright, A History, p. 88 note 33; Megan Snyder-Camp, ‘“No general use can ever be made of the wrecks of my loss”: A reconsidered history of the Indian vocabularies collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition’, Wicazo Sa Review, 30/2 (2015), pp. 129–139.

[6] Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, p. 232.

[7] Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, I, pp. 132, 277; IV, pp. 12, 273, 275, 363; VII, pp. 212, 337, 365 (here for the prospectus), 394–395, 397 (here Clark to Jefferson).

[8] Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 394–396, quote on pages 394–395.

[9] Jefferson to Peter S. Duponceau, November 7, 1817, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 402–404, quote on page 403; see also Rivett, Unscripted America, p. 209.

[10] Rivett, Unscripted America, pp. 209–237.

[11] American Philosophical Society Historical and Literary Committee, American Indian Vocabulary Collection, a description can be found on the Society’s website: <>.

[12] Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 394–396, quote on pages 394–395.

[13] Jefferson to Colonel Hawkins, March 14, 1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. H. A. Washington (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 325–327, quote on page 326.

[14] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia (1783) (Chapel Hill and London, 1982), p. 101, emphasis added.

[15] Gordon M. Sayre, ‘Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and archive’, in Frank Shuffelton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 61–72.


This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021).

Access the full text in open access on the publisher’s website at this EXTERNAL LINK.

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies," in Geographies of Time, 01/12/2021,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Translation and Appropriation in the (Indigenous) Eighteenth Century

Canadian Society for the 18th Century Study (CSECS) & Midwestern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (MWASECS) Annual conference: 13–16 October 2021 @ University of Winnipeg. Translation and Appropriation in the Long Eighteenth Century

I am thrilled to be part of an incredibly stimulating and diverse programme. I look forward to share research experiences, questions, and perspectives at the Roundtable Researching in the Indigenous Eighteenth Century:

Thursday, 14 October 2021, 2:45-4:00 pm / jeudi, 14h45-16h (ET time = 7:45pm London time)
3F. Roundtable / Table ronde: Researching in the Indigenous Eighteenth Century
Moderator / Modérateur, modératrice : June Scudeler (Métis, Simon Fraser University)

Roland Bohr (University of Winnipeg)
Mary Baine Campbell (Brandeis University)
Dr. Peter I-min Huang (Tamkang University, Taiwan)
Giulia Iannuzzi (Birkbeck, University of London – Universities of Florence and Trieste)
Livia Jacob (Rio de Janeiro State University)
Fred Leonard (Haudenosaunee Historian and Author)
Peter Cooper Mancall (University of Southern California)

I will be presenting my lates research on indigenous languages in eighteenth-century European travel accounts on Friday, contributing to a stimulating panel on Places and peoples, part of the Indigenous Eighteenth century programme:

9:00-10:15 am / vendredi, 9h-10h15 (ET time = 2pm London time)
Session 5 / Séance 5
5E. Panel : Places and People
Moderator / Modérateur, modératrice : Mark Meuwese (University of Winnipeg)
Lauren Beck (Mount Allison University), Eighteenth-Century Indigenous Influences on Canada’s Place Names
Giulia Iannuzzi (Birkbeck, University of London – Universities of Florence and Trieste), ‘The language of Uncultivated Man, in Remote and Fresh Discovered Quarters of the Globe’: Nuu-chah-nulth People and the Conceptualization of Linguistic Otherness in the Account of Cook’s Third Voyage
Andreas Motsch (University of Toronto), Native American Belief Systems between Nature and Culture, Religion and Idolatry: Picard and Bernard’s Cérémonies et coutumes de tous les peuples idolâtres

Conference website at this external link

Full conference programme at this external link

James Cook and James King (ed. John Douglas), A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … (London: 1784), appendix VI, “Vocabulary of the Language of Nootka and King George’s Sound, April 1778”. Copy at Biodiversity Heritage Library under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication license.

Comparative Ambitions and Merchandise in Late Eighteenth-Century North America

Vocabularies between scientific enquiry and colonial interests: a new post in the Languages and/in time series

The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a phase of increasing activity in the systematic compilation of vocabularies appended to travel accounts. The aims of scientific enquiry and commercial and colonial interests remained closely intertwined. This is the case, for example, of the James Cook’s third voyage, and of the expedition led by George Dixon and Nathaniel Portlock who followed the route opened by Cook’s third voyage. Leaving England in 1785, Dixon and Portlock aimed to explore the region of the Great Lakes, Quebec and the Pacific coast, to then continue on to China to sell American furs and buy tea in Macau. Dixon, who had been on board the Discovery with Cook, looked for support for the new expedition from the Royal Society by seeking the endorsement of Joseph Banks. The voyage was organised by Richard Cadman Etches and Company (also known as King George’s Sound Company), and before leaving, a licence was purchased from the South Sea Company. Exploiting the recently established North-Pacific routes to China for the fur trade was combined with objectives in exploration and scientific research.[1] In Cook’s journal, prepared for the press by John Douglas and published in 1784, the comparative tables of languages, part of the appendixes, reveal the composite and complex nature of the official account as a collective artifact. Composed by Douglas, they merge information recorded on the field by Cook and by the Resolution’s surgeon William Anderson with knowledge from other sources, and are explicitly offered as linguistic proof of the relationships connecting the history of different populations, such as the common origins of Esquimaux (Eskimos) and Greenlanders.[2]

A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound
“A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound,” engraving after Webber, in Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 8vo edition printed for John Stockdale, Scatcherd and Whitaker, John Fielding, and John Hardy (London, 1784), plate after page 252. The houses and canoes of the natives are seen from the sea. There is one group communicating with sailors on the shore, and a second group near other sailors arriving in a small rowboat. Conifers and hills in the background. Copy at Wellcome Library.

Both Dixon and Portlock published accounts as soon as they returned.[3] Dixon himself wrote the introduction and appendix of his text, while the main body – in epistolary form – is attributed to the trader William Beresford.[4] The mission resulted in a number of areas being mapped for the first time (including Port Mulgrave, Port Banks, and Norfolk Sound – present-day Sitka Sound), and in materials documenting location, languages, manners and customs of the local populations. Dixon (or, in fact, Beresford) described the difficulty he met with while acquiring samples of the languages, both because of trouble finding common ground in the course of initial contacts, and because of other commitments interfering in the schedule, leaving too little a time for study and research.

I often endeavoured to gain some knowledge of their language, but I never could so much as learn the numerals: every attempt I made of the kind either caused a sarcastic laugh amongst the Indians or was treated by them with silent contempt; indeed many of the tribes who visited us, were busied in trading the moment they came along side, and hurried away as soon as their traffic was over; others, again, who staid with us for any length of time, were never of a communicative disposition.[5]

Words to indicate numbers offered the ideal raw material with which to write a short comparative summary of the languages spoken in ‘Prince William’s Sound and Cook’s River’, ‘Norfolk Sound’, and ‘King George’s Sound’. Methodological issues raised by the transcription encouraged a reflection on the absence of objective criteria and on the writer’s own linguistic notions and skills.[6] As for pronunciation – remarked Dixon – indigenous Americans had more success with English than do many speakers from other European countries. This comparison actually led to the category of ‘European’ being used, a category which appears very rarely in other parts of the account, such as in reference to the indigenous Americans’ skin colour being slightly darker than the Europeans’, and in relating the havoc wreaked by the Europeans in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) by bringing new diseases with them.[7] In the essential vocabulary of the language spoken on the Sandwich Islands’ that Beresford managed to write down in September 1787, despite the almost total absence of abstract concepts, the word taboo stands out. It was a term of Polynesian origin (e.g. Tonga, Fiji) already noted by Cook and here translated with the English interdiction, since it had yet to become the loanword universally known in European languages today.[8] In August 1787, Portlock (whose account shows comparatively less interest in the language of the populations he encountered) wrote down a list of words from the language spoken by the inhabitants of Montague Island (Alaska).[9] He prefaced it by remarking that ‘[t]heir language is harsh and unpleasant to hear’, and that he was transcribing it ‘spelled as near the manner of their pronunciation as I could give’. Of the fourteen entries what stands out is the peremptory nature of the opening sequence: ‘Give or hand me / sea-otter / bring’, and the central position occupied by the objects and goods important for trading – ‘sea otter’, ‘beads’, ‘iron’, ‘blanket’, ‘young sea-otter’, ‘a box’, ‘marmot or ermine skin’. What emerges frequently in these accounts by Cook’s followers, are the problems posed by a flow of oral production which proves difficult to document in writing. In this respect, illuminating comparisons can be made with how these travellers described music. Often used to mark key moments in the political and social life of the populations encountered, singing and musical performances heightened the impression that the aural dimension may be only partially and imperfectly conveyed by written registrations, and it often bring to light particularly interesting examples of cultural ethnocentrism on the part of the Europeans.[10] While it was unclear whether the ‘Indians’ ‘make use of any hieroglyphics to perpetuate the memory of events’, a primacy was implicitly granted to writing in documenting the past, giving support to a hierarchisation that relegated indigenous American forms of communication to the realm of ‘uncultivated barbarism’.[11]

Near the end of the century, another very interesting example of vocabulary relatively neglected by scholars is the one compiled by John Long in his Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader. Relating the author’s adventures between the 1770s and the 1780s, the Voyages were published in London in 1791, possibly in the wake of the success of Carver’s account.[12] Notwithstanding translations appearing in French and German the very same year of the English first edition, and two twentieth-century editions in English, the limited attention paid to Long’s Voyages by scholars is perhaps due to it being the only known work by the author, whose life remains obscure in many respects.[13] The title, together with the vocabularies in the appendix and the dedication to Joseph Banks (who is also listed among the subscribers of the first edition), makes it clear that Long hoped to offer a systematic contribution to current knowledge of the indigenous American languages. Cognisance and proficiency in Native American matters went hand in hand with the advocacy in favour political alliances with the First Nations in order to strengthen British interests north of the Great Lakes after the American War of Independence.[14] Long’s role in the Independence War, leading an irregular British-Indian troop, will scandalise the author of the preface to the Chicago 1922 edition.[15] Whether Long had a formal education in England is unknown, but the impression gained from his account is that the most important part of his education (and certainly his language learning) took place in Canada, in the field, and was shaped by mercantile interests:

On my arrival at Montreal, I was placed under the care of a very respectable merchant to learn the Indian trade, which is the chief support of the town. I soon acquired the names of every article of commerce in the Iroquois and French languages, and being at once prepossessed in favour of the savages, improved daily in their tongue, to the satisfaction of my employer, who approving my assiduity, and wishing me to be completely qualified in the Mohawk language to enable me to traffic with the Indians in his absence, sent me to a village called Cahnuaga, or Cocknawaga, situated about nine miles from Montreal […] where I lived with a chief whose name was Assenegetbter, until I was sufficiently instructed in the language, and then returned to my master’s store, to improve myself in French, which is not only universally spoken in Canada, but is absolutely necessary in the commercial intercourse with the natives, and without which it would be impossible to enjoy the society of the most respectable families, who are in general ignorant of the English language.[16]

This passage reveals quite clearly not only the author’s favourable attitude towards the Native Americans, as the vocabularies further attests, but also the presence of an intriguing plurilingualism in the eighteenth-century Montreal, where a command of French was essential, both to do any trade at all and to be a part of polite society. While the vocabularies in Long’s Voyages are still appendixes tacked on to the narrative, there is a noticeable shift in emphasis in comparison to the vocabularies described thus far. The presence of the vocabularies takes centre stage in the title page, as well as in how the book is organised: they occupy around a third of the total pages and have a complex inner organisation of their own. They are meant not only to translate English terms into Esquimeaux (Eskimo), for example, or into Iroquois (Mohawk), but also to enable the reader to make comparisons between different native languages. They include synoptic tables placing side by side English, Iroquois, Algonquin, and Chippeway; English, Mohegan, and Shawanee; English, Mohegan, Algonquin, and Chippeway. Long’s linguistic evidence integrates credited secondary sources (Lahontan, Carver, Jonathan Edwards), uncredited ones (Pehr Kalm), and original materials.[17] Kalm’s Travels into North America are referenced as source of an anecdote proving ‘that the Indians possess strong natural abilities, and are even capable of receiving improvement from the pursuits of learning’.[18] Other authors known and discussed by Long include at various points in the narrative are James Adair and Robert Rogers.[19]

John Long, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader (1791), p. 196. Copy at John Carter Library.

Only for the Chippeway (an Algonquin language also known as Ojibwa and used as a vehicular trade language in the area north of the Great Lakes) is the list translating from the English accompanied by a list translating into English.[20] Most of the space is devoted to vocabularies meant to be used by European speakers, while the compilation’s fundamental connection to trade activities is made clear by the number of words related to the typical merchandise, and by a vocabulary particularly devoted to the names of furs and skins in English and French. Some entries inadvertently document pidgins and borrowings, such as tomahawk, clearly a borrowing from an Algonquin language, which is given as the English translation for the Algonquin Agackwetons and the Chippeway Warcockquoite.[21] Long’s interest is almost exclusively directed at words in common use, and abstract notions are excluded. The time expressions pertain to the ordinary, everyday dimension (such as ‘again, or yet’, ‘always, wherever’, ‘day, or days’, etc.), while the presence of a word such as ‘késhpin’, ‘if’, does not necessarily imply the hypothetical construction of probable or unreal scenarios.[22] Its use might well be limited to expressions of uncertainty or wish, as is the only occurrence reported by Long in a speech.[23]

The contexts, aims, scope, and manners of communication are perfectly exemplified by the ‘Familiar phrases in the English and Chippeway languages’ which illustrate what ethnolinguists today would call ‘speech acts’.[24] These phrases read in many instances like the simulation of a typical communicative exchange, with an opening exchange marked by a tone of friendly familiarity:

How do you do, friend?

In good health, I thank you.

What news?

I have none.

The two anonymous speakers exchange news and insights regarding the territory, the hunting and fishing seasons, and their respective families and personal experiences, before going on to discuss business. They call each other ‘friend’. The end of the phrasebook contains a series of expressions for paying personal respects. The content and general tone of the exchange suggest that perhaps Long’s adoption by the Ojibwa chief Madjeckewiss around the end of the 1790s was more than just a ruse to gain confidence and favourable trading conditions – as the practice was often exploited by European traders eager to become part of indigenous American kinship systems.[25] For Long, it might have marked a significant stage in a process regarding how the trader perceived and represented himself.[26]

I love you.

Your health, friend.

I do not understand you.[27]

Revealingly, the final expression on this list is a statement of incomprehension, an idea missing from Long’s previous lists, perhaps indicating an awareness of the length still to be travelled along the path of intercultural comprehension.


[1] Dictionary of Canadian Biography, IV, 1771-1800 (Toronto, 1979) and 1801-1820 (Toronto, 1983), electronic ed. 2003, <>, s.v. respectively ‘Dixon, George’ and ‘Portlock, Nathaniel’, by Barry M. Gough. On the expedition: Stephen Haycox, James K. Barnett, and Caedmon A. Liburd, Enlightenment and Exploration in the North Pacific, 1741-1805 (Seattle and London, 1997), pp. 13, 41–42, 122–123; Barry M. Gough, The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812 (Vancouver, 1992), pp. 75–77.

[2] James Cook and James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (London, 1784), 3 vols, see III, pp. 531–555 for the comparative tables; [John Douglas], ‘Introduction’, in Cook and King, A voyage, I, pp. i–lxxxvi, see pp. lxxiii–lxxiv, lxxxv. On Douglas’ role: J. C. Beaglehole, ‘Textual Introduction’, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, ed. Beaglehole, 4 vols (Cambridge, 1955-67; electronic reprint, 2017), III – The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780,tome I, pp. cxcviii–ccx; on Anderson: Glyn Williams, Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin (New Haven and London, 2013), pp. 124–125.

[3] George Dixon [and William Beresford], A Voyage round the World, but More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America (London, 1789). Dixon’s account was translated into French the following year.

[4] For this attribution: Philip Edwards, The Story of the Voyage: Sea-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1994), p. 127; Dictionary of Canadian Biography, s.v. ‘Dixon’; Albert J. Schütz, The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies (Honolulu, 1994), p. 36; Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, I, A–F (Lincoln and London, 1991), p. 406.

[5] Dixon, A voyage, pp. 227–228.

[6] Dixon, A voyage, p. 241; similar remarks accompany the vocabulary of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), p. 270.

[7] Dixon, A voyage, pp. 241, 238, 276–277.

[8] Cook and King, A Voyage, III, pp. 10, 537, 553; Dixon, A Voyage, pp. 269–270.

[9] Portlock, A voyage, p. 293 also for subsequent quotes in the text. This list possibly documents a language belonging to the ample stock of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tingit, to which some forty varieties belong today, between Alaska and Hudson Bay, and along the Pacific coast, from British Columbia to the South-West; Mithun, The Languages, pp. 1, 26, 307, 346.

[10] Dixon, A Voyage, pp. 160, 189, 190, 228, 242–243 and subsequent table, 259, 269, 277, 313 (here on China).

[11] Dixon, A Voyage, p. 243 on ‘hieroglyphics’, p. 245 on the ‘uncultivated barbarism’; on coeval claims that there could be no history without writing see Ann Thomson, ‘Thinking about the history of Africa in the eighteenth Century’, in Abbattista (ed.), Encountering Otherness, pp. 253–266.

[12] J[ohn] Long, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader (London, 1791). On Carver’s fortune possibly favouring the publication: John Long’s Voyages and Travels in the Years 1768-1788, ed. Milo Milton Quaife (Chicago, 1922), pp. xviii–xix.

[13] Subsequent editions are: Early Western Travels, 1748-1846,II: John Long’s Journal, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland, OH, 1904); John Long’s Voyages,ed.Quaife; German and French translations are published in 1791 and 1792 respectively; on Long’s biography: Michael Blanar, ‘Long’s Voyages and Travels: Fact and fiction’, in Jennifer S. H. Brown, W. J. Eccles, Donald P. Heldman (eds), The Fur Trade Revisited: Selected Papers of the Sixth North American Fur Trade Conference (Mackinac Island, 1994), pp. 447–463.

[14] Long, Voyages, pp. 9–10.

[15] John Long’s Voyages, pp. xii–xiii.

[16] Long, Voyages, p. 4.

[17] Long, Voyages, pp. viii, ix, 4, 10, 62, 83, 84, 130, 131. For a detailed listing of Long’s linguistic materials and their sources: Peter Bakker, ‘Is John Long’s Chippeway (1791) an Ojibwe pidgin?’, in William Cowan (ed.), Actes du vingt-cinquième congrès del Algonquinistes (Ottawa, 1995), pp. 13–31, esp. pp. 14–16; at p. 14 note 2 Bakker differs from Gille, who defines Long ‘the most cunning plagiarist of the Petit Dictionaire’, Johannes Gille, ‘Zur Lexikologie des Alt-Algonkin’, Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, 71 (1940), pp. 71–86, see p. 75. Jonathan Edwards, Observations on the Language of the Muhhekaneew Indians (New Haven, 1788).

[18] Pehr Kalm, Travels into North America (Warrington and London, 1770-71), 3 vols; Long, Voyages, pp. 28–29.

[19] Long, Voyages, pp. 29, 31, 71–72, 149, 155 for references to James Adair, and p. 155 for a mention of Robert Rogers.

[20] Campbell, American Indian Languages, pp. 29, 401 note 135, 153. On Chippeway as a vehicular and inter-tribal language during the nineteenth century: Richard A. Rhodes, ‘Algonquian trade languages revisited’, in Karl S. Hele and J. Randolph Valentine (eds), Papers of the 40th Algonquian Conference (Albany, 2010), pp. 358–369. Bakker, ‘Is John Long’s Chippeway (1791) an Ojibwe pidgin?’, p. 30.

[21] Campbell, American Indian Languages, p. 11.

[22] Long, Voyages, pp. 196–208: ‘A table of words shewing, in a variety of instances, the difference as well as analogy between the Algonkin and Chippeway languages, with the English explanation’; pp. 227–252: ‘Table of words: English: Chippeway’; pp. 253–282: ‘Table of words: Chippeway: English’.

[23] Long, Voyages, pp. 134, 234. For usage in hypothetical scenarios: John Horden, A Grammar of the Cree language (London, 1913), p. 33; John Summerfield, alias Sahgahjewagahbahweh, Sketch of Grammar of the Chippeway Languages (Cazenovia, 1834), pp. 11–13, 16–17.

[24] Long, Voyages, pp. 283–295, also quoted below in the text.

[25] Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010), electronic ed., pp. 99–109, 162.

[26] The linguistic analysis of the vocabularies and of the Chippeway texts scattered through the narrative leads Bakker to believe that ‘it is likely that the vocabularies, the dialogues and the speeches were all put together independently by the same person, most probably Long […] not the publisher or an editor’, Bakker, ‘Is John Long’s Chippeway (1791) an Ojibwe pidgin?’, p. 30.

[27] Long, Voyages, p. 294.


This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021).

Access the full text in open access on the publisher’s website at this EXTERNAL LINK.

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Comparative Ambitions and Merchandise in Late Eighteenth-Century North America," in Geographies of Time, 01/10/2021,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage

Phrasebooks for European travellers in eighteenth-century North America and the cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

This article explores the vocabularies of Native American languages published as part of the travel accounts written by explorers, traders and colonial policymakers in North America over the eighteenth century. Starting with the renowned Voyages by the Baron de Lahontan, the analysis takes as its endpoint the journals of the famous expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The aim of this study is to foreground what these lexicographic compilations reveal about European encounters with societies categorised as radically different from – and less civilised than – the traveller’s own: an ‘otherness’ sometimes exploited as a mirror and term of comparison that challenged the observer’s ethnocentrism. Drawing on existing scholarship about the cultural history of Euro-American encounters in the modern age, this study puts forward an original analysis of the temporal conceptualisations underpinning vocabularies of ‘savage languages’, in terms of both historical diachronicity and time as a culturally constructed frame of human experience.

This focus on the lists of words and phrases included in travel accounts, journals and relations makes it possible to question the relationship between the recording of linguistic evidence and travel narratives, and explore the complex negotiations between empirical observation and pre-existing cultural categories and stereotypes. A close reading of these often-neglected primary sources helps us to identify recurrent conceptual tropes and assign a central role to the historicisation of the Amerindian within wider processes of cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021).

Access the full text in open access on the publisher’s website:

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Lawson, A New Voyage (1709), page 225
John Lawson, A New Voyage North Carolina: Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country (London, 1709), 225. In his Voyage, Lawson inserted a brief vocabulary giving the English translation of words in Tuskeruro (Tuscarora), Pampticough (Pamlico) and Woccon. Copy at John Carter Brown Library.